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Refugees Describe Massacres in Congo

Battle between ethnic militias is part of a civil war consuming the mineral-rich country.

May 27, 2003|Davan Maharaj and Alexis Masciarelli | Special to The Times

BUNIA, Congo — From the safety of a United Nations compound ringed with razor wire and guarded by Uruguayan peacekeepers in armored vehicles, refugees described two weeks of massacres that have taken place in this town in the northeastern corner of Congo.

"We saw people with their throats cut, with their bellies open, bodies from which the hearts had been removed," said Japhet M'Balissaga, a 25-year-old university student sitting under the yellow glow of a plastic makeshift tent. "I promise you that if it had happened in front of foreign cameras, the world would have been shaken."

So far, relief workers have discovered more than 320 bodies, most of them civilian women and children. Dozens of mutilated bodies have been retrieved from mass graves.

Fighting between rival ethnic militias has prevented investigators from venturing outside Bunia to count how many people have been slaughtered in the countryside.

The latest violence is especially troubling because the battle between Hema and Lendu ethnic militias is part of a broader civil war that has consumed this mineral-rich Central African country for 4 1/2 years. By some estimates, about 4 million Congolese have died -- mainly from disease and starvation.

The conflict has been dubbed Africa's First World War because it involved the national armies of seven African countries, which feasted on the gold, diamonds, timber and vast natural resources of Congo.

The U.N. Security Council is discussing whether to send a reinforced mission to Congo, but human rights groups say officials must act quickly to prevent more killings.

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank that is monitoring the conflict, called the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or MONUC, "impotent," adding that it should be allowed to use force to restore order in Bunia and the surrounding Ituri province. The 700 U.N. peacekeepers -- almost all of them Uruguayans -- in Bunia are mainly defending U.N. installations and staff here.

"We can't do miracles [and] it's obvious that we can't protect all the population," said Col. Daniel Vollot, a French officer who heads the MONUC peacekeepers. "We can't put one man behind every house," he said bluntly. "People are killing each other happily."

Several weeks ago, the major warring parties agreed to set up a two-year transitional government under President Joseph Kabila and to hold national elections for the first time in four decades. Under the deal, all foreign armies agreed to withdraw.

Earlier this month, Uganda said it withdrew the last of its 9,000 soldiers from the Bunia area, creating a security vacuum that allowed renewed clashes between rival militias, which have become proxy armies for Ugandan, Rwandan and Congolese forces.

Many had predicted that massive bloodletting would follow if no one replaced the Ugandan forces. About 50,000 people in Ituri have been killed in clashes since 1999, according to U.N. and other estimates.

While the conflict has been driven by historical hatred between the Hemas and Lendus, human rights groups say that much of the fighting involves competition for the region's resources. The mines in Ituri province are laden with gold. And only recently, the Canadian company Heritage Oil signed deals with the Ugandan and Congolese governments that could eventually allow it to drill for oil near Lake Albert, which straddles both countries.

"If oil is found, the various sides will want to lay claim to it and be in a position to negotiate to get a share," said Dominic Johnson, a German researcher for a Congolese think tank that recently completed a study showing how the scramble for natural resources has fueled the local conflict.

Bunia bears the scars of a town disfigured by heavy fighting. The main streets are virtually deserted, shop fronts have been torn apart, and bullet-riddled buildings testify to wanton shooting.

The main hospital has been abandoned. A makeshift health center has been set up opposite MONUC headquarters. About a hundred patients, half of them with machete and bullet wounds, lie on mattresses or pieces of cloth. The few doctors struggle to make do with little equipment and a shortage of drugs for an increasing number of patients. In the last two weeks, about 400 patients have arrived.

Urumbi Pitua, 29, who sat on a mattress, pointed to bandages covering 15 gunshot wounds in his leg, wrist, shoulder and chest. He said he was attacked when members of the Hema militia, known as the Union of Congolese Patriots, or UPC, stormed his house.

"They said they were looking for Lendu fighters," he said. "I said I didn't know where they were. They instantly started shooting at me."

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